Five weeks ago, America passed the centennial of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as America’s 28th President. Remarkably, no one made much of a fuss.
Understand, I’m not going to get on my high horse about this. I’d be ashamed to.
I majored in history at UVA, and took several graduate courses in American History. I taught U.S. History for over a decade at the high school level. Even today, I read history for fun.
But until last month, I’d never read a full-length, scholarly biography of Woodrow Wilson.
And if it hadn’t been for pure coincidence, I might never have done so.
Now, as most of my regular readers know, I’ve been living in Staunton for the past eight months. I’ll be here until late summer, when my lease runs out.
Staunton is home to the Woodrow Wilson Library, which is on the site of the Presbyterian manse where the future President was born.
Unlike most presidents, Wilson moved about a good deal. He was born in Virginia, and he studied briefly at UVA’s law school and was a member of the Jefferson Society (two things he and I have in common). Those ties allow Virginia to claim him as our eighth (and last) president.
But Wilson grew up in Georgia, attended college at Davidson and then Princeton, and did his graduate work at Johns Hopkins. After earning his Ph. D., he taught briefly at Cornell, at Bryn Mawr and at Wesleyan, before returning to Princeton to become a popular professor – and then president.
From leading a university, Wilson made the unusual leap to Governor of New Jersey, which set him up to run for President in 1912.
All of which is to say that Wilson might have been born in Virginia, but no state can fully claim him. Still, his presidential library is in Staunton, which is how I came to meet the library’s board.
I was at Cranberry’s, the best place in Staunton to get coffee or breakfast. Because I was using their wi-fi, I had to sit at one of the two tables with a working electrical outlet. The unoccupied table was one that backs up to the counter where customers deposit their used mugs, plates and silverware – under which are plastic tubs for compostables and recyclables.
So, as I sat there checking my email, a parade of genteel folks came over and began – with polite apologies – reaching past me to use the recycling and compost bins. This being Virginia, one of them said something gracious, and – being a Virginian myself – I politely replied.
And pretty soon I had stood up and shaken hands all around, and we had settled that they were the board of trustees of the Wilson Library, and that I was an old history teacher who knew a bit about their man.
I met the son and grandson of Arthur S. Link, who wrote one of the better books I read in my UVA history course on the 20th century. Also a professor from UVA and another from Princeton, both of whom handed me their cards.
And I figured, surely, this was not an accident. If nothing else, I should read up a bit on Woodrow Wilson, in case I ever ran into one of them again.
So I did a little research, discovered a solidly recommended book on Kindle, and downloaded it. It turned out to be John Milton Cooper’s recent – and fairly massive – Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.
It was a truly great read – especially on Kindle. I imagine the print edition would have been pretty hefty.
It was also fairly humbling. I’ve always considered myself rather knowledgeable about American history, and particularly the Progressive Era. But I learned so much about Wilson, from this one book, that I must admit I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought.
It turns out that, when I was studying at UVA, I imbibed a bit too much of the Teddy Roosevelt perspective on the Progressive Era. Without doubt, TR was a great man – one of our greatest presidents.
But my professor had written a massive biography of TR – which we were, of course, required to read – and we college boys had naturally gravitated to the bigger-than-life cowboy-soldier-explorer-naturalist rather than the college professor. (We had quite enough of those to deal with.)
Only now, when I’m old enough to know better, am I discovering how much more there is to appreciate about Wilson.
Anyway, having finished Cooper, my next read will be James Chace’s 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs—The Election That Changed the Country. It was a bestseller a few years back, and the story is a barn-burner.
In 1912, for the only time I can think of, a former president (TR), the incumbent president (Taft), and the future president (Wilson) ran against each other.
There was even a Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, who won nearly a million votes.
I’ve already gotten through Chapter One.
And there’s so much more to learn.